Big Ups

Local hero Ashton Eaton lifted the Olympic track and field trials in Eugene with a world record in the decathlon
July 02, 2012

At its best, track and field is enriched by its simplicity—times are run, distances jumped or thrown, heights scaled, records set. But the sport can also be strangled by its complexity, its visceral purity obscured by statistical arcana and official rulings that are often confusing to the casual fan.

Both elements—beautiful simplicity, vexing complexity—were on display last weekend when the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials embarked on a 10-day run in the track temple of Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. They unfolded almost simultaneously late last Saturday afternoon, as first Ashton Eaton, 24, broke the world record in the decathlon and moments later Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh ran to a dead heat for third place in the women's 100 meters.

The former was a symphony of excellence, unfolding in a manner that was easily understood and embraced by the crowd of more than 21,000. Eaton, who attended and competed for Oregon, had been improving rapidly since taking up the decathlon as a Ducks freshman out of Bend, Ore., in 2007. Many insiders thought he would challenge the 2001 world record set by the Czech Republic's Roman Šebrle, but few thought it would happen in 2012. Then came two spectacular days in Eugene. As reigning Olympic champion Bryan Clay saw his London chances disappear with a DQ in the hurdles, Eaton was on a historic pace. After nine events he needed to run a personal best of 4:16.23 in the grueling 1,500 to break the record, a detail that was related to the Hayward crowd by decathlon announcer Frank Zarnowski.

The crowd watched the clock and exhorted Eaton. "Those last 600 meters, that's when the crowd was lifting me up," said Eaton. "I was not running on my own legs. It was incredible. I don't care what anyone says—this is a magical place." Eaton finished in 4:14.48 and broke the record by 13 points. He is the Olympic gold medal favorite.

Thirty minutes later Felix and Tarmoh threw themselves across the line in the 100, fighting for the third and final Olympic spot behind winner Carmelita Jeter and runner-up Tianna Madison. The stadium scoreboard briefly showed times of 11.067 seconds for Tarmoh and 11.068 for two-time Olympian Felix. Those marks were unofficial, but the crowd was not made aware of this fact and neither was Tarmoh, who ran a victory lap while Felix sobbed nearby.

Upon further analysis the race was declared a dead heat and 23 hours later USA Track and Field announced a procedure for breaking that tie (none had been in place before) that will require a run-off (or, possibly, a coin toss) at an undetermined time. And so the trials—and the sport—go forward in both glory and dissatisfying confusion.

The Needle Knows

Decathlete Ashton Eaton looks headed for gold. Here's how some other qualifiers from Eugene register on the medal meter

GALEN RUPP

MEN'S 10,000 METERS

It's been 48 years since Billy Mills kicked home for the gold in Tokyo, the last U.S. runner to medal in the 10K. Rupp has run 26:48, which puts him in the mix. But he'll need a blistering finish to pull it off, and challenge training partner Mo Farah of England.

NONE BRONZE SILVER GOLD

JENN SUHR

POLE VAULT

Suhr got silver in 2008, the best available with Yelena Isinbayeva, who took her second gold, in the meet. Isi set a world indoor record in February but has been quiet since. In this least predictable of events, Suhr at her best could medal—but she went only a modest 15'1" in Eugene.

NONE BRONZE SILVER GOLD

TREY HARDEE

DECATHLON

The two-time world champion was left in Eaton's slipstream in Eugene, but remember, Hardee underwent Tommy John surgery last September. His goal was to make the team with as little effort as possible. Gold in London seems implausible, but not silver.

NONE BRONZE SILVER GOLD

CARMELITA JETER

WOMEN'S 100 METERS

The reigning world champion is one of only three women on the planet to have run under 10.70, along with Flo-Jo and Marion Jones (whose time was vacated by drugs). But you just know the Jamaicans will bring it to London. Big chance, but only on her A game.

NONE BRONZE SILVER GOLD

JUSTIN GATLIN

100 METERS

Left for dead by the running community while serving a doping ban from 2006 to '10, Gatlin has made a remarkable comeback. His trials-winning 9.80 suddenly makes a Jamaican sweep of the London 100 not nearly so certain. Even Usain Bolt has run only 9.76 this year.

NONE BRONZE SILVER GOLD

SANYA RICHARDS-ROSS

400 METERS

After a disappointing bronze in Beijing and five years fighting a medical condition that left her with aching joints and skin inflammation, which she says is under control, SRR is again the event's best. Her 49.28 in Eugene was the fastest in the world since her 48.83 in '09. Big favorite for long overdue gold.

NONE BRONZE SILVER GOLD

PHOTOPhotograph by PETER READ MILLERMULTI TALENTED Tabbed as a future star when he took up the decathlon in '07, Eaton showed in Eugene that he has progressed in leaps and bounds. PHOTOBILL FRAKES PHOTOSIMON BRUTY (CLAY)NO SECOND CHANCE Reigning Olympic champ Clay looked headed to London until a miscue in the hurdles left him out of the running. PHOTOSIMON BRUTY (RUPP) PHOTOSIMON BRUTY (HARDEE) PHOTOSIMON BRUTY (RICHARDS-ROSS) PHOTOPETER READ MILLER (JETER) PHOTOPETER READ MILLER (SUHR) PHOTOPETER READ MILLER (GATLIN)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)